Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 9

The Russian government and the opposition have both tried to co-opt the Cossack revival

By Vasily Andreev

(Part 1 of this article appeared in the May 16 issue of Prism)

Ever since Russia returned to independent statehood in 1991, the government has declared its intention of supporting the Cossacks and restoring them to government service. So far, however, few practical steps have been made in this direction.

The first working group to study the "Cossack problem," headed by former Security Council secretary Yuri Skokov, was set up in the spring of 1992. This group included representatives of the Ministries of Internal Affairs, Security, and Defense. Ataman Aleksandr Martynov — who, together with other Cossack leaders, put forward a draft of a new presidential decree — became Skokov’s assistant. According to Martynov’s draft, all Cossacks would be bound not only to serve in the ranks of the Russian army but to remain under arms as an army of reservists subordinate to their atamans.

The group adopted a set of recommendations which the government took under advisement but did not in practice implement. On July 16, 1992, the Supreme Soviet passed a resolution "On the Rehabilitation of the Cossacks." The previous day, President Boris Yeltsin had signed a decree "On Measures to Implement the Law ‘On the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples’ in Relation to the Cossacks." Neither legislative act envisaged official status for Cossack officers, and this caused some indignation on the part of the Cossacks.

That same year, two departments on Cossack affairs were created, one in the Federal Center for Land and Industrial Reform, and the other in the State Committee for Nationalities. Their activities were also restricted to working out recommendations for the government.

Russian vice president Aleksandr Rutskoi made a speech calling for the revival of Cossack traditions in the army to begin with the creation of Cossack units in the motorized infantry regiments and airborne brigades. Deputy Minister of Defense G. Kondratev promised, already in the fall of 1992, to call up soldiers to serve in Cossack units while, at the same time, mentioning that certain difficulties existed on this issue (it was not for example clear who should be considered by the registration and enlistment office to be considered Cossacks, and who should not). Again, no practical steps were taken to carry out the promises given to the Cossacks by Rutskoi and Kondratev.

On May 8, 1993, by order of President Yeltsin, a working group led by Aleksandr Kotenkov was approved to work out a Charter of the Russian Cossacks. This group included officials of the State Legal Administration and representatives of the Union of Cossacks.

In April 1994, the atamans of the largest Cossack organizations which had joined the Union of Cossacks took part in a meeting organized by the Russian government. At that meeting, it was decided to create a special consultative body under the president, and to ask the president to set up a State Committee on Cossack problems with the right to introduce legislative initiatives. The atamans approved the definition of the Cossacks as "a unique people on its own territory, with its own regional differences and historical traditions."

In an interview in April 1994, Deputy Premier Sergei Shakhrai defined aspects of government policy in relation to the Cossacks as follows: service in the armed forces, border troops, and MVD detachments (to maintain public order, serve in customs posts, and guard installations); coordination and consolidation of the Cossack communities; and creation of "strong Cossack settlements in the eastern part of the country." Shakhrai said a department of Cossack affairs had been created under the Russian government, and that Cossack public organizations would be registered by the Ministry of Nationalities and Regional Policy.

In June 1994, that ministry presented the government with a draft "Complex Program for the Gradual Economic and Cultural Revival of the Russian Cossacks," prepared by the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The weakness of the government’s support for the Cossacks is largely explained by the fact that, throughout the period 1992-94, Moscow was in embroiled in a series of paralyzing power struggles between the president and the parliament. Both sides tried to win the Cossacks over to their side. The result was a series of loud populist statements, but almost no practical activity. This situation continued until the 1996 presidential election, after which the market for populist gestures shrank significantly.

A few practical measures to support the Cossacks were taken, however. In January 1996, Yeltsin signed a decree "On the Main Administration of Cossack Hosts under the President of the Russian Federation." This body was charged with establishing close contacts and mutual understanding between the various levels of the presidential administration and Cossack groups. In April 1996, A. Semenov, formerly a high-ranking official in the Federal Security Service (FSB) was appointed head of the Main Administration of Cossack Hosts. Semenov, who had been sent into retirement when Mikhail Barsukov became director of the FSB, proved a tough leader. He ensured that the Cossacks were given the task of guarding Russia’s borders and were brought into serve in army units. He overcame the resistance of the Duma, which did not agree with bringing the Cossacks into service before the appropriate law was passed, and the dissatisfaction of several Cossack leaders, who had initially advocated working out a single rule for service applicable to all Cossacks.

As a result of Semenov’s activity, there was a mass entry of Cossacks into contract service in the Russian armed forces and in border units. The Cossacks usually guard weakly-manned border areas, such as the border with China in the Trans-Baikal region, and Russia’s borders with the other CIS countries, which have not yet been completely supplied with equipment. For example, a Volunteer Cossack Border Guard (which was made up of 20 people at the moment of its creation in 1996, but has gradually grown larger) was set up as part of the Western Group of Border Troops, which guards Russia’s borders with Ukraine and Belarus.

In January 1997, the president signed a Decree on the State Registration of the Cossack Hosts. A host was considered to be registered after its charter had been approved by a special presidential decree. One of the first to be registered — on February 12 — was the Terek Cossack Host. As a result, the Terek Cossacks won the official right to bear arms and to maintain order in the territories in which they reside.

Also in February this year, the Duma adopted a new version of the law "On Cossacks." The law envisages the creation of an "All-Russian Cossack Association" encompassing all of the existing Cossack hosts. A supreme ataman would head this association, who would lead all the Cossacks in active service and appoint the atamans in charge of each host. The draft law also defines the terms of Cossack service — 24 years — and allows for the possibility of bringing the Cossacks in to carry out "non-traditional" (i.e., police) duties. The section on Cossack self-government includes only a provision for the coordination of the actions of Cossack organizations with local government agencies.

The draft law has met with the dissatisfaction of a significant number of Cossacks, who oppose the introduction of the position of supreme ataman and to his being granted broad powers. Representatives of both the Union of Cossacks and the Union of the Cossack Hosts of Russia have proposed that the post of supreme ataman should not be instituted at all. Instead, they propose that the government should deal directly with the atamans of the individual hosts on the question of government service. Cossack representatives advocate the introduction of broader self-government in Cossack territories — up to and including leaving only Cossack organs of government in force there.

The proposed term of obligatory government service has also provoked dissatisfaction, as has the possibility of their performing police functions beyond the boundaries of Cossack lands — something that has always been a matter of sensitivity for the Cossacks. Some of the more radical Cossack leaders are calling for this law to be disobeyed, if it is passed without taking into account the Cossacks’ wishes.

Recently, support for the total armament of the Cossacks has increased (it is proposed to arm up to one million men). One supporter is Security Council deputy secretary Boris Berezovsky, who had said that "if the country is unable to protect its citizens, it should allow these people to defend them on a legal basis." (1) Berezovsky appears to have in mind the possibility of allowing the Cossacks (above all, the Terek Cossacks) to defend the border with Chechnya from any possible future repetitions of the 1995 Budennovsk raid.

The Cossacks could play an important role in Russia’s future force structure. Both the president and his opponents are likely, therefore, to vie to draw the Cossacks into government service. This explains the Duma’s desire to pass the law "On Cossacks" in the form most beneficial to the opposition and in particular, to create an All-Russian Cossack Association which is not subordinate to the president.

Circumstances could prevent the government from realizing its intended program of measures relating to the Cossacks; the legislative base has not been worked out and the military budget is short of funds. The legislation does not address the issue of Cossack self-government and land use, and amendments to the law on arms which would permit the possibility of arming the Cossacks have not been adopted. Nor has provision yet been for allocating funds for the formation and upkeep of new military units in general, and Cossack units in particular. Moreover, the Russian Cossacks today do not represent a unified political force. They include representatives of all political currents. This situation is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Arming all the able-bodied Cossacks is unlikely to prove possible or desirable. The process of arming the Cossacks is nonetheless becoming irrevocable. Cossacks will continue to be brought into government and military service, even though this may not happen at a rapid rate. Most likely, the Cossacks will make up a few elite units in Russia’s army and border troops.

Looking into the more distant future, many experts predict that the Cossacks, most of whom are settled in very fertile land in southern Russia, will be transformed into a peaceful landowning class, a class of successful farmers. Under present conditions, when there is still political tension in many areas in Russia and neighboring states and there is a high danger of fresh conflicts, the Cossacks’ main sphere of activity will continue to be military service and the protection of Russia’s borders. These have been among the Russian Cossacks’ main tasks for many centuries.



1. Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 6, 1997

Translated by Mark Eckert

Vasily Andreev is a journalist specializing in radical national movements.